Judy Blume’s “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” comes to the screen as a laugh-out-loud comedy that will be nostalgic to those who grew up with the books, and a rare girl-powered tween tale with edge for everybody else.
The laughs can be cringe-worthy, but when the focus of a book is “the magic of being a girl,” the messy side of entering puberty and questioning religion, that’s kind of a given. I mean, when you get the writer/director of “Edge of Seventeen” to adapt it, what’d you expect?
And besides, it’ll be mostly the boys and the book-banners who’ll be doing the cringeing.
Abby Ryder Fortson of “Ant-Man and the Wasp” makes the title character appropriately wide-eyed and naive, an indulged eleven year-old only-child who moves to a new school in the Jersey suburbs at the age girls are forming into “packs” and boys are popping up on their radar.
The family hasn’t even unpacked when pushy biggest-house-in-the-neighborhood Nancy (Elle Graham, terrific) shows up and selects Margaret for inclusion in her “secret girls club.”
Margaret, Nancy, Janie (Amari Alexis Price) and Gretchen (Katherine Mallen Kupferer) may be gossipy and childishly callous. And we could see Nancy morphing into a genuine Mean Girl. But it’s pre-social media 1970. They’re just an innocent quartet determined to be get on with growing up.
Their peer-pressuring club “rules” include keeping a “boy book” of their crushes, and an oath to share when each gets her first period “and tell us all about it.” “No socks” are one of Nancy’s fashio “rules.” And having a bra is a sixth grade “must,” whether you need it or not. Nancy has just the exercise for that.
“I must I must I must increase my bust my bust my bust!”
Mom (Rachel McAdams, excellent as always ), who gave up her career for this move, has to take Margaret through that amusing rite of passage, buying that “trainer” bra, an experience that wouldn’t be complete without a tactless sales lady. But Mom is there for the initiation and for support.
“How’s that feel?”
“I cannot WAIT to take it off!”
“Welcome to womanhood.”
Margaret grew up in a religiously “mixed” marriage. Ohio Protestant Mom is an artist and art teacher, estranged from her family because she married a Jewish New Yorker (Benny Safdie). So, “no religion” is the rule in their house. It’s a matter for Margaret to make up her own mind about “when you’re older.”
Her overbearing, widowed, well-off Jewish granny (amusingly larger-than-life Kathy Bates) is the only grandparent in her life, and she isn’t exactly neutral on that subject.
Margaret has taken to conversational prayers to an unseen deity who might save her from having to move (no dice), embarassment (ditto), and help her fit in.
“Are you there, God?”
That subject moves to the foreground when Margaret’s first-year teacher (Echo Kellum) decides that would be her perfect sixth grade “project,” a subject she’ll study all year and make a report on at year’s end. Granny can take her to synagogue in “the city,” her parents can make a Christmas Eve visit to a local church, club pal Janie can take her to a predictably energetic and musical Black church and the Catholic church she’ll stumble into.
Everything addressed here, from religion and puberty to girl-bullying, that first “real” boy-girl party and that first crush operates on a higher, funnier plane than your average “Wimpy Kid” and its ilk.
“Margaret” can seem a tad adult for younger kids. And as nostalgia, wallowing in ’70s fashions and often ugly “mid-century modern” decor, all aimed at luring the first generations of fans of the Blume books, the film falls short. Fortson makes a solid lead. But Oscar winner Bates and McAdams are the only “big names” and players with real pop in the cast, with Safdie — co-writer/director of “Good Time” and “Uncut Gems” — having so little screen presence that one question that pops to mind every time we see him paired with McAdams.
How’d he end up with her?
But people have been talking about adapting “Are You There God?” for the big screen for decades, and the arrival of this picture, shortcomings and all, could not be timelier. With red state libraries under assault and reactionary book-bannings by the least literate “parents” and school boards and every day’s headlines featuring some new ultra-conservative assault on women’s rights and girls’ rights to their girlhood, “Margaret” has a timeliness that Blume could barely have imagined when her break-out book was published back in 1970.
Writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig’s film is funny, cutting and true to its source material, an amusingly unblinkered look at girlhood that may be a bit budgetarily-malnourished but could not show up on screens at a better time. The shock of “Why have there not been more realistic girl-centered stories like this before now?” just underscores that.
Rating: PG-13, for thematic material involving sexual education and some suggestive material
Cast: Abby Ryder Fortson, Rachel McAdams, Benny Safdie, Amari Alexis Price, Elle Graham, Katherine Mallen Kupferer and Kathy Bates
Credits: Scripted and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig, based on the novel by Judy Blume. A Lionsgate release.
Running time: 1:45